Neil Braidwood turned tourist in his own city for 48 hours.
I’ve lived and worked in Edinburgh for many years, but the city I fell in love with has moved on, and I wanted to reconnect with some of the places I knew.
I used to live in the Lawnmarket at the top of The Royal Mile, and I worked in Edinburgh Castle, so my commute in 1982 was an easy one. I loved the bars and restaurants in and around the old town, and I especially loved exploring the closes and vennels.
So, to do Edinburgh justice, and reconnect with my old stomping ground, I decided our base (my wife Maureen and I) should be The Royal Mile – that volcanic trail leading from the castle to Holyrood Palace. Steeped in history, I knew the street intimately from when I first lived here, but hadn’t explored it in years.
The Adagio Aparthotel has opened in a former seamans’ mission in the lower section of the Royal Mile, so we checked in to one of its bijou studio rooms for our two night stay. With views of Salisbury Crags and the old Royal High School the building forms part of the New Waverley project, which will be completed in 2019.
Our room has one of those fold out beds you normally see in 1950s US TV shows – it disappears into the wall to reveal a sofa beneath. A great space saver, it’s also useful for business travellers who might need to use the room for a meeting.
There’s a wee kitchen too, with a ceramic hob, microwave, dishwasher, massive fridge and all the utensils you’ll need to rustle up a hot meal. We have no use for these, as The Royal Mile is awash with decent eateries of all shapes and sizes – so we head out.
We take a wander up towards the castle, passing pubs, cafes and gift shops, to John Knox’s House (main picture). John Knox (the Protestant reformer) was reputed to have lived here in the 16th century, but many think this was a rumour put about by residents when the council threatened to demolish the building to widen the road. Whatever the truth is, it is a fine example of a dwelling house from this time. It is incorporated with the Scottish Storytelling Centre, which holds events and workshops as well as having a nice cafe.
We hurry up over North Bridge, where the street gets much wider. St Giles Cathedral comes into view. Founded in 1124, the kirk is open to visitors, and Church of Scotland services are held on Sunday mornings.
The ‘Heart of Midlothian’ can be seen set into the cobbles near to the church entrance. This mosaic marks the site of the original tolbooth, or prison, which was demolished in 1817. There is a local custom to spit on the heart, as executions were performed here, and spitting is a sign of hatred of the prison.
Moving up through the Lawnmarket, we take a short detour to inspect the Writer’s Museum in Lady Stairs House. This beautiful building has artefacts from household names like Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as contemporary writers like Ian Rankin. It also has some splendid views over to Princes Street and the Firth of Forth.
My old flat was right here, next to Gladstone’s Land – a 17th century merchant’s house now in the care of the National Trust of Scotland. I didn’t have lavish painted ceilings in my bedroom as it does, but you can visit the house to see how Edinburghers lived their lives back then.
I was pleased to see the Jolly Judge still exists – my old local pub in St James Court. The fire was on, and it looked pretty cosy.
We climb ever higher to the castle esplanade, where the Tattoo takes place every August. It’s quiet now though and in the darkness, we pick out landmarks in the distance like George Heriot’s School and the Quartermile complex near the Meadows.
We don’t have time to visit the Scotch Whisky Experience, housed in the Victorian Castlehill school. I’ve been before, and the tour explaining how Scotch whisky is made, is brilliant, and of course there is a shop selling almost every brand you care to mention. Amber restaurant is here too, and a fine place for a quick coffee or a leisurely meal.
We head down towards the Grassmarket, the site of more pubs and restaurants, to wander back on ourselves along the Cowgate towards St Mary’s Street and David Bann – an established vegetarian restaurant with a great reputation. We haven’t booked, but they squeeze us in as it’s early. I order a Barney’s Red Rye ale, made just up the road at the Summerhall Brewery while Maureen opts for a St Mungo lager from Glasgow.
When the food arrived, the plates were heaving, and I wondered if I’d finish my huge portion. I had ordered vegetarian koftas, and they certainly looked like the meat variety, but were made from chickpeas, and tasted delicious. There was tons of flavour in the accompanying middle eastern style vegetables and sauce, and I really enjoyed the dinner.
It’s still too early to go back to the hotel, so we wander the streets for a while, and I note that many of the pubs from my day are still here, but have had refits and a change of name. I once tried a pub crawl of The Royal Mile with three English pals in the 80s. By the time we got to the World’s End, we had been in a few bars, and were a bit worse for wear. My friend Simon asked for a mead. The barman looked blank. “It says you are a purveyor of mead on the sign outside,” explained Simon. Sure enough, it did, so the barman searched the cellar until he found a bottle.
The Waverley bar, just next to the World’s End was a classic old boozer in my day, but closed in 2016 after the death of its owner ‘Captain’ Ian Walker whose family had owned it since the 1920s. Thankfully, it has reopened and the interior has changed very little. We slip into one of the banquette booths for a nightcap.
Breakfast in the hotel the next day is a help yourself buffet affair, ranging from a variety of cereals to the full Scottish. We stoke up for the day ahead, and venture into the crisp November air.
We want to go to the Queen’s Gallery situated at the bottom of the Royal Mile. Amazingly, I have never been, and the exhibition of Roger Fenton’s pioneering photographs of the Crimean war finishes today. We buy a combined ticket, allowing us to see Holyrood Palace too. I haven’t been there since I was at secondary school. Back then, the tartan trousered guides regaled you with fascinating stories – but today the stories are all on a handset and translated into different languages. Mary Queen of Scots’ bedchamber is the best room I think – very atmospheric and worth the entrance fee alone.
The cafe is too busy, so we fight our way through the throngs of tourists and past the Scottish parliament building (left). There are free tours of the interior on weekdays, but you should book ahead. Love it or hate it, the building is certainly unique, and it really is worth seeing inside.
Not far up the Mile we take a left turn and visit the Scottish Poetry Library. This wee haven houses 45,000 books and CDs of Scottish poetry works, all of which are available to peruse there and then, or borrow to take home and digest at your leisure.
We managed to pack in another three galleries throughout the day – including the City Art Centre in Market Street, the Talbot-Rice Gallery at the University of Edinburgh and the Surgeons’ Hall Museum on Nicolson Street. The first two are free, and exhibitions change regularly. The Surgeons’ Hall Museum permanent collection is not for the faint hearted, and although there is plenty to interest the general public, I’d describe it more as a research museum for medical students.
All that wandering round exhibitions builds up your appetite, and tucked behind the Law Courts at the top of the Mound, we found Stocks restaurant – a self-proclaimed urban bistro, with a simple menu and a welcoming atmosphere. Serving ‘French and Swiss specialities’ we were only in the mood for a burger and a beer.
Our time as tourists was coming to a close, but we felt satisfied that we had packed in a huge amount of culture in our short time in the capital. We shouldn’t leave it so long next time!